Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Immigration Reform and Control Act (6 November 1986)

U.S. legislation designed to control immigration to the United States and to redefine the status of resident aliens and illegal aliens working or living in the country. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), passed by Congress and signed into law on 6 November 1986, was a multifaceted effort to control immigration, especially from Mexico and other Western Hemisphere nations. Among other things, the act specifically defined and legalized seasonal agricultural workers, many of whom were of Mexican origin and who comprised an important part of the U.S. agricultural economy. It established sanctions for employers who knowingly hired, recruited, or for a fee referred illegal workers. Most important, the IRCA legalized illegal aliens who could prove residency in the United States since 1 January 1982. They were granted immigration amnesty during 1987–1988. Estimates show that 1.9–2.8 million previously illegal aliens took advantage of the amnesty program.

Earlier immigration acts, such as the immigration reforms of 1965, had redefined the old quota system and emphasized immigration in order to reunite families. The 1965 reforms produced a marked increase in immigration from developing countries under the Family Provisions Act. But they also set quotas for the Western Hemisphere. Many Mexicans and other immigrants who had migrated legally under the old system suddenly became illegal aliens under the 1986 immigration formulas, affecting an estimated 3 million people already in the United States.

The IRCA amnesty broke with the American tradition of offering amnesty only to individuals, never groups, and certainly never to illegal aliens. Those who had been in the United States for four years, mostly agricultural workers, were legal and were authorized under the 1965 act to bring in their dependents. The 1986 amnesty was a one-time-only event. Yet since then, Congress has enacted seven additional amnesties for another 3 million illegal aliens, and in 2004 there were nine additional amnesty bills in Congress.

The 1986 IRCA amnesty required that aliens prove residency in the United States continuously during the specified years. Illegal aliens who may have left the country between 1982 and 1987 and later returned were denied legal status. Class-action suits against the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) challenged the inconsistency of the agency's definition of "continuously." One of the cases in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court produced an injunction that permitted 100,000 late applications for amnesty consideration. The court also ruled that workers whose cases were on appeal should receive work permits, but in 1996 Congress reduced the court's role in the amnesty program. When the Ninth Circuit Court ruled in 1999 that applicants could be deported because they had not filed timely suits (within six years), U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democratic, called for another amnesty for the estimated 300,000 immigrants subject to deportation (although the INS claimed that there were only 45,000 affected).

The amnesties generated negative reactions among many Americans, mostly because the people involved were poor, uneducated, and young. Many were rural agricultural itinerant workers who had been laboring on large farms in California, Arizona, and Texas. Because they were young, a baby boom during 1987–1991 eventually overcrowded schools and stressed medical resources. The welfare burden in California and other states with large migrant workforces grew markedly, as did the hostility toward immigrants in general.

John H. Barnhill


Further Reading
Dolbeare, Cushing. Detention of Undocumented Aliens: Actions by the INS prior to Adoption of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Washington, DC: American Civil Liberties Union, 1990.; Hayes, Helene. U.S. Immigration Policy and the Undocumented: Ambivalent Laws, Furtive Lives. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.
 

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